Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Does Jesus Say about the End? A Commentary on Matthew 24

Commentary on Matthew 24

by David Wilkinson




The single most important passage on the Second Coming is the Olivet Discourse. This speech by Jesus to his disciples on the signs of his coming is conveniently very sequential. It also provides a framework of the most important signs of Christ's return, showing a "big picture" view of the entire end times narrative. The sequence provided here by Jesus can be "filled in" and "fleshed out" with other Bible teachings to see how other end time events relate to the overall end times scheme. Below, you will find that the Bible text of Matthew 24 is in RED, while other quoted cross references are in BLUE, to avoid confusion.

1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

Jesus stokes their curiosity by explaining that this majestic temple would be completely and utterly destroyed. This destruction was also foretold in Daniel 9, after an "anointed one" is "cut off" (a euphemism for death). In retrospect, Daniel 9:26 informs us that the destruction of the "city and the sanctuary" take place after the execution of Jesus, Israel's anointed king. Jesus takes this prophecy a step further by stating the extremely comprehensive nature of this destruction where every stone would be thrown down. This occurred when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in 70 A.D.

3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 

This rather dramatic pronouncement by Jesus prompts three questions by the disciples, in the following order:
  1. When will this [the destruction of the 2nd temple] happen?
  2. What will be the sign of your coming?
  3. [What will be the sign of] the end of the age?
The disciples probably thought these events would happen in close proximity to one another. Nevertheless, Jesus' response and the past 2000 years of human history seem to show this is most definitely not the case. Based on other accounts of the Olivet discourse (Luke 21, Mark 13), it seems Jesus addresses all three questions in this one sermon to his disciples on the mountain.

Despite the fact that they contain similar structure and language, the two other accounts of the Olivet Discourse describe significantly different events, especially in Luke 21. Luke's account omits the disciples 2nd and 3rd questions above, and concentrates largely on the first question regarding the destruction of the temple. Nevertheless, it also contains language about the Second Coming, with sequential qualifiers that seem to separate the two events.(1) While it may be impossible to reconstruct the entire speech by harmonizing the three, it seems that Matthew and Luke recorded answers to the different questions posed by the disciples above. Luke records the answer to the question about Jerusalem's destruction, while Matthew records the answer about the Second Coming and the end of the age.

4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 

Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus here states items that are not signs of the end. He lists two problems that mankind will face:
  1. People claiming to be the Messiah
  2. Wars and rumors of wars
In response, Jesus says to not be alarmed because the "end is not yet." false christ's and wars have plagued humanity for the last 2000 years, and continue to do so today. Therefore, it is quite logical to say they are not special signs of Christ's return. Despite some impressions that others may give to the contrary, most of the signs of Christ's return remain entirely unfulfilled.

7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.

Here Jesus lists three items that are the beginning of the birth pains.
  1. World war 
  2. Famines 
  3. Earthquakes 
Jesus says here that the signs of his coming are like the "birth pains" of a woman in labor. A woman who is in labor experiences less frequent and less painful contractions when the labor process starts. This contractions become more painful and frequent, culminating in all out agony as the baby is about to be born. Once the baby is born, the mother forgets her pain and is overwhelmed with joy at the birth of the child. This metaphor of the end times is used elsewhere in the Bible (Jeremiah 30:4-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:3). This illustration seems to provide us an understanding of how each of the signs will start off more mild and less frequent, but culminating into something much more intense and more frequent. After an intense period of pain, Christ will return, bringing great joy to his followers.

While a mere war is not a sign of Christ's return, world war most definitely is. War as a precursor to other major end time events can be found throughout the Bible. The book of Daniel describes a two-pronged military invasion of the Antichrist's kingdom (Daniel 11:36-45, esp. verse 40). This invasion of the Antichrist's territory causes him to retaliate very forcefully, plunging a large part of the world into war. (2) Furthermore, Revelation 6 describes the red horse of the apocalypse, which takes peace from the earth. Interestingly, the red horse of war in Revelation 6 is immediately followed by the black horse, which represents famine. This sequence dovetails quite nicely with the information provided by Jesus here, wherein he mentions world war, followed by famines.

Ever since World War II and the rebirth of Israel, the entire planet has enjoyed a relative period of peace. If world war were to break out again, and be followed by various famines and earthquakes, it would most definitely be a sign that we are in the beginning of the end times.

9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 

After these initial signs, Jesus goes on to describe a global persecution of Christians, wherein many are put to death. We know this is an unprecedented and global persecution because he says "you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake." Nevertheless, the natural result of a sudden global persecution of Christians is the apostasy of some of them. Due to Christianity's massive success in the world, it is unsurprising that there are numerous nominal Christians as well, who would be unwilling to hold to their convictions if pressed by persecution. As a result, many former Christians will give up their faith under pressure, and betray their friends and relatives to death. Paul also refers to this end time "rebellion" in 2 Thessalonians 2 as one of two major prerequisites to Christ's return. (3)

Once again, this is consistent with Revelation 6. After the red horse of war and the black horse of famine, the pale horse of death comes who kills a quarter of mankind through various means, including the "wild beasts" of the earth. (4) After this horseman, the souls of martyrs are seen under the altar, who desire vindication. So this sequence of war, famine, then persecution is corroborated by Revelation 6 as well.

It is not entirely clear why this global persecution breaks out in the first place. It is clear from Revelation 13 that the Antichrist carries out a global persecution of God's people. However, this seems to be sequentially after the abomination of desolation (see comments on v. 15). Furthermore, the end times city of Babylon (Revelation 17-18) seems largely responsible for the deaths of God's people during the end. Although it's identity is quite cryptic (literally: "mystery"), it appears to be a false religious system that is linked with a city that is a coastal economic superpower. Regardless of the initial cause, this final persecution of Christians will be both global and severe.

12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Due to the fact that "lawlessness" will have become so rampant in these final days before Christ's return, many people will turn away from Christ and from caring for their fellow human beings. It is interesting that the term "lawlessness" is used, as Paul refers to the end time Antichrist as the "man of lawlessness." Nevertheless, Christ warns us here that it is the one who "endures to the end" that will be saved, not those who wickedly defect from the faith. Here also is the first time in the sermon where Jesus warns about false prophets, in addition to false christs.

Jesus goes on to say that "this gospel of the kingdom" will be preached to the whole world and to all nations. "Nations" here does not refer to a political entity, but an ethnic group. "Gospel of the kingdom" can refer none other than to the good news of Jesus death and resurrection. Despite there being Christian believers in every political nation, there are not a substantial number of believers in every ethnic group.

This inevitably raises questions by missions organizations and other interested parties as to what exactly constitutes an ethnic group, and what is the threshold for which it can be considered "reached. "Regardless of the answers to these most interesting questions, the fulfillment of this prophecy can happen much more rapidly than expected. This is due to the exponential increase in Internet penetration in countries with many unreached people groups. Furthermore, some entrepreneurs are looking to coat the entire world with internet in the next few years via satellite or drone Internet. With the dramatic increase of mobile device usage across the world, as well as the prospect of global internet access, the fulfillment of the Great Commission no longer seems so daunting. Indeed, it's fulfillment could even sneak up on us without realizing it.

15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 

Here Jesus mentions the "abomination of desolation" mentioned by the prophet Daniel. Nevertheless, Jesus makes special note that the reader should understand what the term means. Though a very cryptic term for us, his wise listeners would be familiar with this term, as they were aware of the story behind Hanukkah. (He is of course talking about the one who reads the book of Daniel, not the reader of Matthew 24, since Matthew 24 was a speech at the time it was given.)

The abomination of desolation is referenced only three times in the Old Testament, all of which are in the book of Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11). The 11:31 abomination of desolation refers to a prophecy that was fulfilled in 168 B.C., where Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Jerusalem and placed an idol of Zeus on the temple altar. This sets the precedent for the meaning of the term abomination of desolation, as an idol placed in the temple. After a successful revolt, the temple was rededicated, which is now celebrated at Hanukkah.

Daniel 12:11 refers to an end time abomination of desolation, around the time of the general resurrection of the dead. This leaves Daniel 9:27, where an abomination of desolation event happens halfway through a 7-year covenant created by the "Roman" Antichrist. However, Dan. 9:27 is unique in that the more literal translations speak of the abomination as if it is a person, and not an object as was the case with the idol of Zeus. Here, it is implied that a person is the idol in the temple, as opposed to a mere object. This is consistent with in the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13, where Jesus describes the abomination of desolation using a masculine pronoun.

“But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Mark 13:14 ESV). 

Paul is more explicit in when he describes the man of lawlessness who sits in God's temple, proclaiming himself as if he is God (2 Thess. 2:3-4). This mans arrival is accompanied by counterfeit signs and miracles that deceive the unbelievers (2 Thess. 2:9-10) This is consistent with Revelation 13, where everyone is forced to worship a talking image of the Antichrist. This idol of the Antichrist in the temple, either the man himself or his talking image, are what Jesus means when he refers to the "abomination of desolation."

16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 

Upon seeing the Antichrist in the temple, Jesus makes abundantly clear that the residents of Judea (lower West Bank) at the time are in immediate and grave danger. Jesus instructs them to flee without looking back, even leaving behind their coats. This time will be especially bad for those who are pregnant or nursing small children. Here Jesus says to pray that this does not occur in winter (which would be especially bad) nor on a Sabbath day. Observant Jews are only allowed to walk a very short distance on a Sabbath day, so strict observance of this could cost them their lives.

This particular passage does not elaborate on why the situation is so immediately life threatening to the residents of Judea at the time. However, other parts of Scripture provide some clues. First, Daniel 11:41 states that the Antichrist will invade Israel. It seems some kind of invasion would be necessary to enforce his presence at the temple, which would otherwise be vigorously opposed by religious Jews. Furthermore, Zechariah 12 & 14 describe a  time when all nations will gather against Jerusalem and Judah (Judea) and go to war with it. They will cut Jerusalem in half and exile half of the city, while leaving the residents of the other half. Many Jews will be killed, raped, and captured during this siege. Nevertheless, God comes to the rescue, and creates a valley through which Israel can flee.

In addition to this, Revelation 12 describes a woman (Israel) with twelve stars on her head who flees to the desert for protection. As she is fleeing, the red dragon (Satan) spews out a torrent of water to overtake her. Nevertheless, the earth opens up and swallows up the flood that Satan had spewed out. This flood likely represents attacking armies, since flood imagery is sometimes used to represent an overtaking army. This is consistent with the view that the Antichrist and his allies launch a surprise attack on the inhabitants of the lower West Bank (Judea).

Though the invading army view seems vindicated, there is another angle worthy of consideration. Luke 17:22-37 is another separate discourse by Jesus on the Second Coming. Here he uses very similar language regarding Noah's flood and sudden disaster (see entry below on Matt 24:37) but seems to provide other detail as well.

Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— 30 so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. (Luke 17:28-31)

Here Jesus uses the same type of fleeing language as is used in v. 17, but says that this instruction is pertinent "on the day when the Son of Man is revealed." (4) Nevertheless, the images he uses to motivate those who choose to flee pertain to the "fire and sulfur" that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah, not invading armies.

There are a few options to solve this problem. First, the invading armies might take the form of an aerial assault from bombers and fighter jets, consistent with the fire and sulfur picture. This is also consistent with the need to flee the area without any hesitation. Second, in at least one end time surprise attack on Israel, God uses "torrents of rain, hailstones and burning sulfur" to destroy the invaders (Ezekiel 38-39). Perhaps Jesus instructs the residents of Judea to flee, not only because of the invading armies, but also to escape divine judgment that will very promptly fall on those pursuing armies.

21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 

Jesus again references the book of Daniel by referring to a time of unprecedented trouble. This "great tribulation" is so severe that if it would continue, everyone would die. This timeline is also consistent with the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, wherein a quarter of the Earth's population is killed by war, famine, disease, and governments. (5) Furthermore, note that the passage says the great tribulation is "cut short." Nowhere does the Bible state that the "great tribulation" is 3.5 years. Instead, it states that the return of Christ comes on an unexpected day and hour "immediately after the tribulation of those days." (see comments on v. 29 & 36). This would mean that the great tribulation, by its very nature has an unspecified duration.

When considering the nature of the great tribulation, such as it's suddenness, intensity, and unprecedented disaster, one cannot help but think of nuclear war. Food shortages and contamination in the wake of war would also be unsurprising. Furthermore, war has a way of dramatically escalating paranoia about real or perceived enemies within one's own ranks. In much the same way as occurred in the French Revolution, Christians could be labeled "counterrevolutionaries" or some other pejorative fear-mongering title (i.e. terrorist). All of these factors occurring together (war, famine, persecution) are unsurprising from the viewpoint of history.

23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 

Jesus again warns of false messiah's and false prophets. Two things make this interesting. First, Jesus initially said that false Messiah's are not a sign of the end times. Yet here, he says that false messiahs and false prophets pose a real threat to those who have faith in Christ at the time. This is due to the fact that they are enabled by Satan to perform "false signs and wonders" as Paul describes in 2 Thess. 2:9.  Second, Revelation 13 seem to only describe one main false God (the Antichrist), and one False Prophet. It is rather illuminating that these will not be the only two working such wicked deeds.

Revelation 13 seems to go into some detail about what the false signs and wonders will be. The chapter describes the Antichrist, who is worshiped by everyone on the face of the earth, and the False Prophet, who enforces the worship of the Antichrist. The Antichrist is mortally wounded, but comes to life through demonic empowerment. Furthermore, the False Prophet is able to make fire come down from the sky in order to authenticate his alleged religious authority. Due to the gravity of these false signs, it is quite a good thing that Jesus warned us "beforehand."

26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

Here, Christ makes explicitly clear how to know if someone is really him. If you have to go anywhere or do anything to see him, then it's not him. His return will be very public and global, as the verse about the lightning suggests. Revelation echoes this by saying that "every eye will see him" when he is "coming with the clouds." Jesus return will be personal, visible and unmistakable to all the inhabitants of the earth. (See notes on v. 40-41 for a discussion of the meaning of v. 28).

29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 

The reference to the darkening of the sun and moon is not new:

The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. (Joel 2:31)

Here we see that these signs in the heavens are a prerequisite for the day of the Lord to occur. The "day of the Lord" is mentioned frequently throughout the Old Testament as a time of great pain and global destruction. Furthermore, Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 refers to Christ's coming as synonymous with the "day of the Lord," saying it will come "like a thief in the night." He describes how this will be a time of "sudden destruction" for the unexpecting unbelievers at the time, consistent with Old Testament imagery. This is in contrast to the believers, who are "caught up" in the clouds to meet the Lord at his coming.

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thess. 5:1-3)

Since the signs in the heavens are so dramatic, we might expect to see it mentioned in the book of Revelation. Yet indeed we do, in chapter 6:

12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:12-17 ESV)

Here we find all of these "day of the Lord" themes united into one. First, we see signs in the sky mentioned, that are very similar to those mentioned by Jesus, and those mentioned by Joel as a prerequisite for the Day of the Lord. Furthermore, just as in Matthew 24, so in Revelation  6 the stars fall from the sky. It goes on to describe unparalleled destruction with "every mountain and island" removed from its place. Those remaining on earth cower in fear at the visible and unmistakable presence of God, due to his impending judgment. They loathe that "the great day of their wrath" has come, and that no one can stand before him. This mention of the day of their wrath is an unmistakable reference to the Day of the Lord, which Paul views as synonymous with Christ's coming.

Revelation 6 provides a chronology of end time events which are very consistent with the discourse provided by Jesus. First mentioning world war as well as famines, it goes on to describe a time of unprecedented death. The fifth seal mentions martyrs under the altar, which is consistent with a persecution following war and famine, as Jesus describes in Matt. 24. Next, the signs in the sky at the opening of the 6th seal are very in line with the description of Christ's coming. Finally, Revelation 7:9-16 describes a multitude of every race in heaven, who are coming out of "great tribulation." These also dovetail quite nicely with other Old and New Testament passages describing the "Day of the Lord."

Finally, apostle Peter describes the day of the Lord in a similar manner, saying:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:10)

This is a lot like what we see when we hear descriptions by other passages on the second coming (i.e. "like a thief") as well as Revelation 6 and it's depiction of falling stars and the inability of people on earth to hide (i.e. their works are "exposed.")

30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

Again we find this description replete with Old Testament imagery. Daniel 7 talks about a very exalted king who is ushered into God's presence who will have an everlasting kingdom that never ends. This is couched in a vision about a boastful horn on one of the heads of a ferocious ten-horned beast, which echoes Revelation 13. Clearly, Jesus sees the book of Daniel as the main "go-to" book on the end times!

13 “I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
    there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
    and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion
    and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
    which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
    that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

Zechariah also describes great weeping by the Jewish people when they see the one they "pierced" who rescued them from the attacking armies. Jesus extends this great weeping to include the whole world, in addition to Israel. This is consistent with how the remaining inhabitants of the earth respond to God's visible presence in Revelation 6.

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10)

This description paints a far more exalted picture of Jesus than it already seems. As previously mentioned Jesus the exalted Son of Man figure in Daniel 7, whom all nations "serve." This word for serve is used exclusively for God in the Old Testament. Furthermore,in other passages, God is described as riding the clouds (Psalm 104:3; Deut 33:26; Isaiah 19:1). Here we find that it is Jesus who comes on the clouds, inaugurating the time of God's judgment.  Finally, the mourning cross-references to Zechariah, when God says that they will weep for "me," who they pierced.

 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

This again dovetails nicely with what Paul teaches about the coming of the Lord. At a loud trumpet blast, angels will gather all the elect from one end of "heaven" to the other. This trumpet and apparent lift-off are all found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:16-17)

There is no reason to think that the event in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a separate event from what is found in v. 31. The chronological sequence of events that lead up to both events are the same. Furthermore, what happens at that event are the same. The word "rapture" can be used to describe the "lift off" component of the Second Coming of Christ. There is no reason to make the lift off component a separate event from the "coming of the Lord" mentioned in 1 Thess. 4:15.

Recall that the "day of the Lord" is inaugurated by the "coming of the Lord." (1 Thess 4:1-5:3) This day of the Lord is the time of God's judgment, which those in Christ are rescued out of via the rapture event. This picture keeps believers away from God's wrath, without an unnecessarily convoluted reading of the Matthew 24, where Jesus would otherwise fail to mention the separate "rapture" event.

Both the Old and New Testaments make clear that the "day of the Lord" is not one literal 24-hour day (see Zechariah, Revelation, et al.) Nevertheless, Paul purposely conflates this Old Testament term with Christ's return and the rapture event. Many things are said to happen at the "coming of the Lord," including, but not limited to: the resurrection of the dead, the rapture, vengeance against persecutors, war with the Antichrist, etc. Just like the "day of the Lord" cannot be thought of as only one day, so Christ's coming is an event that occurs but also persists. All of these events should not be thought of as happening in a 24-hour period, though they all relate to Christ's return. Yet despite this, it is clear that the "rapture" event abruptly inaugurates the Second Coming process, due to it's sudden and unexpected nature (1 Thess. 5:3, Matt 24: 37-39).

As our Lord Jesus did many acts and mighty works at his First Advent over the span of about 3 years, we can expect something similar at the Second Advent. This is consistent with other New Testament descriptions of the second coming, which describe the day when Jesus Christ is "revealed" (2 Thess. 1:7) from heaven. Language like this does not imply a coming and a sudden departure, but more of a continued presence. This is consistent with the Greek word for coming, parousia, which implies a continued presence or "arrival." Whether visible in the heavens as he judges the earth, fighting the Antichrist, reigning on earth, or retaliating against persecutors, when Christ comes, he will not leave again.

32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 

In the same way that a fig tree makes leaves before summer comes, in the same way, the person who sees all these signs takes place needs to be aware that Christ could come at any moment. The distance between spring and summer is quite short. Similarly, the distance between all of these signs and Christ's return will be relatively short. Recall the image of the "birth pains." The nature and intensity of the signs outlined here are consistent with the idea that the "contractions" begin with less frequency and intensity. These become more frequent and intense until the woman is in full-blown labor.

We should likewise see this pattern with the signs. The less frequent and severe start the sequence (wars, famines), becoming more severe and frequent (global persecution), culminating in all-out labor (abomination of desolation and great tribulation). These events will likely become closer together and more severe as they happen, just like labor pains. As a result, we should view the Second Coming as an event that is imminent upon the onset of the great tribulation, since severity and rapid frequency of the signs would need to be close together, in keeping with the labor metaphor.

34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

V. 35 is another veiled claim to the deity of Christ. It hearkens back to Isaiah 40:8 "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." Numerous factors continue to authenticate the fact that the original words of Jesus have been preserved, even 2000 years later. Furthermore, not only was the transmission accurate (due to manuscript evidence) new and old research authenticates that these were in fact the teachings of Jesus. The fact that Paul knows about so many of the themes of this passage, even as early as the 50's A.D. (see 1 & 2 Thessalonians) is further supporting evidence that the words here are the words of Jesus Christ himself.

V. 34 is harder to interpret. Recall that the "original" Olivet Discourse was one speech given on the mount of Olives to his disciples. This speech was in response to three questions the disciples asked Jesus (see commentary on v. 3 above). It becomes evident that Luke answers the question pertaining to the temple's destruction, while Matthew answers the question pertaining to the end of the age. Nevertheless, Luke includes information on the second coming along with information on the destruction of Jerusalem, with important sequential clarification. (1) Since the Luke passage also contains Second Coming information "mixed in," the same could be said of the Matthew passage. With this in mind, there are a few possible interpretations of v. 34.
  1. It refers to the the "evil and adulterous generation" of people who rejected Christ's first coming. (Matt. 16:4). This could extend to the present day, if we view this "generation" as the generation of Jews who reject Christ's coming. 
  2. It refers to the generation of people who see the end time signs described by Jesus. With this view, the generation that sees the signs of Christ's return will see the return itself. This is obvious, considering the discussion on the birth pains (v. 32-33). 
  3. It is from the original Olivet Discourse "full" speech, but is a residual element that is from the part of the speech about the temple's destruction. 
Whatever the passage means, it does become abundantly clear what it cannot mean. Due to the structural similarity between Luke 21 and Matthew 24, partial-preterists interpret this as some of the primary evidence that all of the events of Matthew 24 were fulfilled at the destruction of the Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Romans. Though it is understandable to try to interpret the passages as all answering the same question, it is a misguided interpretation. Many items listed in Matthew 24 remain unfulfilled: 
  1. The public, visible and personal return of Christ. To maintain consistency, preterists interpret this as a spiritual coming that took place in 70 A.D. This leaves yet another future Second Coming yet to be fulfilled. The idea that there are two second comings strains the passage. It is also inconsistent in its hermeneutics, since everything from v. 1-28 is allegedly interpreted as literal, while 29-31 (and some of the rest?) are not meant to be literal on the partial-preterist interpretation.
  2. The abomination of desolation does not refer to the destruction of the sanctuary, but is a technical term for an idol placed within it. As yet, this was not fulfilled in 70 A.D., when the temple was destroyed. Some preterists realize this, and try to find historical events that could loosely correspond  (6), but they seem quite unsuccessful, in light of how Paul interprets the desecration of the temple by the Antichrist, and the image of the beast in Revelation 13.
  3. The great tribulation, which Jesus describes as the worst time in history, happened in 70 A.D. according to a preterist interpretation. The slaughter of nearly 1 million Jews is clearly a horrific time in history. But there can only be one time that is the "worst in history." Adolf Hitler trumped this by killing 6 million Jews. Though the Jewish Holocaust was itself not the great tribulation, the fact that it was worse than the slaughter in 70 A.D. proves that the original slaughter was not itself the great tribulation, as partial-preterists maintain. 
36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 

How sad that many Christians only know one thing about the Second Coming, namely that it's time cannot be known! This some use to dismiss discussion of the return of Christ or signs that may be taking place. It is absolutely true that the day or hour of Christ's return cannot be known, and it is quite foolish to set a date and time for this event. However, the entire thrust of the chapter, especially v 32-33, seem to imply that the general time frame can be known. This time frame can even be narrowed down to a very small window, provided certain major events have happened. V. 36 is not stated by Jesus to dismiss thought about the Second Coming. On the contrary, it is later used as evidence that a person should stay alert for that event, so as not to be surprised by it. (see v. 42).

Consider how much time evangelical Christians spend discussing dating, marriage and other related phenomena. The Bible contains precious little advice that pertains solely to marriage and courtship rituals, (though some can be found in the book of Proverbs as well as in the epistles.) Contrast the amount of time Jesus spends talking about marriage (relatively little), with the amount of time he spends talking about his return (at least 2.5 chapters of text). Furthermore, his heavy reliance on the book of Daniel shows that this book is important for examining the political structures that will come into place in the end. Finally, Jesus gave the apostle John a very large book of the Bible on his return in the book of Revelation. This is in contrast to other visions he could have given that are often discussed in the church today, instead of Christ's return. If God wanted us to think about the Second Coming less, he is certainly going about it the wrong way!

37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 

Noah's flood serves as an object lesson for those living at the Second Coming of Christ. Though Noah apparently warned his contemporaries about the coming flood, they did not listen. Instead, they went about their lives, getting married and eating and drinking. They were caught by complete surprise when the flood came and killed them all. The same thing will happen at Christ's return. Recall that Paul equates the "day of the Lord" with Christ's return. The day of the Lord is a time of "sudden destruction" which catches the unbelieving off guard.

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thess. 5:1-3)

The image of sudden and unexpected destruction at Christ's coming is perfectly consistent with the picture Jesus draws using Noah's flood. Furthermore, apostle Peter discusses this as well. There will be those who mock the idea that Christ will return. Nevertheless, they will be in for an unpleasant surprise.

3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Peter 3:3-7)

40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 

It may seem that these verses are an obvious description of the "lift off" component of Christ's return (i.e. the "rapture"). Upon further theological exploration it is nowhere near as obvious at it may initially seem. Nevertheless, this is ultimately the best interpretation.

Are the people taken into judgment or taken up in the rapture? V. 28 above contains the cryptic saying: "Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather." This same saying is found in Luke 17, in close proximity to similar "one will be taken and one left" type language.

34 I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” 37 And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:34-37)

The disciples essentially ask "where" the second coming will take place. Upon initial examination, the remark about the corpse and vultures seems to indicate that, wherever a believer is, angels will gather to that person and snatch them away at the rapture. However, it is couched in language about judgment. Furthermore referring to believers using the metaphor of a "corpse" and their gathering up with birds of prey seems unbecoming to the situation. Finally, the parable of the weeds and wheat provide some hesitation when interpreting this as the snatching away at the rapture.

In the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, angels gather law-breakers and take them to judgment in the fiery furnace at the end of the age, while leaving behind God's people. This could cause us to be of the impression that people are taken into judgment, instead of up in the rapture.

All things considered, the first interpretation is preferred, for a few reasons. First, we know that at Christ's return, angels go out to gather his people together, from one end of the "heaven" to the other. This is consistent with the snatching away that takes place (i.e. two women are working, one is taken and the other left). Second, though apparently negative, the metaphor regarding the vultures and corpses may have been the only adequate metaphor to describe "where" the second coming takes place.(7) The answer to that question is wherever one of God's people is, so the angels will gather there and take them up. Third, we know from other passages, such as the judgments in Revelation, that the unbelievers are not immediately taken away to the fiery furnace. They are left on the face of the earth to experience various plagues. Only after these are done are they taken to the fiery furnace.

Another interesting item of note regarding v. 40-41 is that the global persecution of Christians has not yet become so severe that Christian's and non-Christians cannot work or live together. If genocide is in progress, it will not by any means be completely successful at this point (at least not in all parts of the world). It seems that friendships and work relationships exist between believers and non-believers right up until the day Christ returns.

42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Jesus reiterates the need to "stay awake" because the time of his return is not known. This is another instance where he teaches that the uncertainty of the time and date should make us more alert, not less. This is in contrast to using the uncertainty of the date as a reason to dismiss discussion of the Second Coming.

Here, Jesus makes the famous comparison between his arrival and a robber at night. Jesus' coming will be very surprising and unexpected for those who are not alert. If someone did know the time a robber was coming to their house, they would stand guard and not let them steal. However, as the illustration goes, robbers do not come on a specific schedule. So if a robber is coming, it is necessary to stay awake all night to prevent his theft. The same applies to the return of Jesus. Like a thief in the night, one does not know the time Jesus will return. This is further impetus to stay alert and be ready for his arrival at any time. The lack of knowledge is certainly not an excuse to go back to sleep!

Peter and Paul are both aware of Jesus teaching on the Second Coming, as they both use the term "thief in the night" to describe the event (2 Peter 3:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3).

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 

The entire passage is meant to motivate a person to faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ, despite the pressure of the circumstances. Those who are shepherds in care of the flock that is Christ's church must continue to faithfully shepherd, caring for the flock. Such a person will be commended at the return of Christ. The person who is faithful over a little, will be put in charge of much. This is illustrated by the parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11-27, where those who were responsible with a small amount of money were given leadership over a corresponding number of cities. Furthermore, Revelation makes clear that Christ's followers will reign with him in his kingdom.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)

Jesus says the same to the church in Thyatira, even promising political power to his faithful followers.

26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. (Revelation 2:26-27)

Paul echoes this in his letter to the Corinthians, when he says that we will "judge angels." (1 Cor. 6:3). As if eternal life in God's presence were not enough, God rewards the faithful with political authority in the age to come.

48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

If Christ's blessing to the faithful is very generous, it is also very stern to the wicked servant. The faithful servant carefully cares for the flock, feeding them at the proper time. However, the wicked servant forgets Jesus, thinking he won't be back for a long time. This sounds awfully similar to 2 Peter 3, where "They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:4) It is uncertain if these scoffers of 2 Peter 3 are the same as the wicked servant who says his master is delayed. Either way, the wicked servant does not care for the flock, but gets drunk and "begins to beat his fellow servants." It is interesting that in many Second Coming passages, drunkenness is mentioned as a possible snare. Take 1 Thessalonians 5 for example. Here the connection to being alert for Christ's return and not being drunk are connected, just as they are in Matthew 24.

4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thessalonians 5:4-8)

Here the connection to being alert for Christ's return and not being drunk are connected, just as they are in Matthew 24.

As a result of the hypocrisy of the wicked servant, Jesus comes on a day that he is unaware, cuts him to pieces and puts him in condemnation with hypocrites. This is presumably the same location as hell or the "eternal fire" that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 25. The punishment there is so severe that there will be weeping. Furthermore, he is sent to a place where there is "gnashing of teeth." The references in the Old Testament to gnashing of teeth involve a wicked hostility on the part of evil doers. It does not necessarily refer to intense sadness. When the wicked are put to shame and suffering, they will be filled with jealousy and tearful rage as they are punished. Psalm 112:10 encapsulates this sentiment quite well.

The wicked man sees it and is angry; he gnashes his teeth and melts away; the desire of the wicked will perish! (Psalm 112:10)

Outline Summarizing Signs in Matthew 24


  1. Events that are not signs of the end
    1. False messiahs 
    2. Wars and rumors of wars
  2. Events that are the beginning of the "birth pains"
    1. World War 
    2. Famines
    3. Earthquakes
  3. Events after the above signs but are more intense
    1. Global persecution of Christians 
    2. Apostasy
    3. Completion of the Great Commission
  4. Abomination of Desolation 
    1. Antichrist is set up in Jerusalem temple
    2. Jews in Judea flee pursuing armies 
    3. False messiahs and false prophets who perform miraculous signs
    4. The worst time in human history
  5. Signs in the Sky 
    1. Sun and moon are darkened, stars fall
    2. Son of man comes on the clouds and all nations mourn
    3. Angels gather his elect together
  6. Spiritual Lessons on the Second Coming
    1. When the above signs take place, the return of Christ is imminent
    2. The day and hour are not known, so must always be prepared
    3. It will be very unexpected and disastrous to those not watching
    4. One must not fall prey to false messiah's and false prophets, despite their miraculous powers
    5. One must stay faithful to the end to avoid damnation and to gain Christ's praise

Conclusion

In Matthew 24, Christ provides us one of the most comprehensive and sequential picture of the end times outside of the book of Revelation. As we have seen, Jesus' discourse relies heavily on the book of Daniel and other Old Testament passages about the end. One cannot help but hear Jesus heartfelt plea to the listener of this speech. He implores us to stay faithful to the end, no matter the cost. It will surely be worth it.


Footnotes:

1) See Luke 21:10-12 where it describes at least some items that appear end times signs, but goes on to say "but before all this" when referring to the persecution of the disciples. This is in contrast with Matthew 24:7-9, which places a global persecution after some of the signs that are also listed in Luke 21:10-12 which appear to be end time signs.
2) The Antichrist takes over Egypt during one of these end time wars, who apparently were among those who initially attacked him. The only other time "kingdom against kingdom" is found in the Bible is in Isaiah 19:1-10, where it describes civil unrest in Egypt. This civil unrest apparently does not remain a matter local to Egypt. It seems to spiral out of control when "kingdom against kingdom" go against each other.
3) The Greek word for "rebellion" is "apostasia," which is where we get our English word "apostasy."
4) This possibly allows for a short time gap (i.e. a few days or weeks) from the abomination of desolation and the return of Christ from heaven.
5) Wild beasts in the Bible are often metaphors for ferocious human governments, who are often responsible for the persecution of God's people. (See Daniel 7; Revelation 13)
6)Some preterists maintain that the Roman standards carried by the soldiers as they sacked the temple included idolatrous images of a Roman Eagle. This they claim, is how the "abomination of desolation" portion of the passage can be said to be literally fulfilled. Nevertheless, this explanation is very unsatisfactory when considering the original Abomination of Desolation by Antiochus IV Epiphanes was an idol of Zeus placed on the altar. (see comments on v. 15) Furthermore, this explanation does not account for depictions of the final abomination of desolation provided by Paul in 2 Thess. 2, as well as Revelation 13.
7) Negative metaphors about a positive event are not wholly uncommon in this passage (see v. 43) as Jesus compares himself to a robber at night time!

References:

Rosenthal, Marvin J. The pre-Wrath rapture of the church. T. Nelson, 1990.


Price, J. Randall. The Abomination of Desolation. www.raptureready.com/2015/04/07/abomination-of-desolation-by-randall-price-pdf/.

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Star_Rain_in_the_Desert.jpg

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